BORN: Grand Pre, Nova Scotia • 26 June 1854
DIED: Ottawa, Ontario • 10 June 1937
Perhaps one Canadian in a thousand could properly identify Sir Robert Borden today. But there once was a time when this determined man, so fixed on victory, led Canada through war prepared to destroy his own country in order to save it.A lawyer, Borden had practised in Halifax from 1878.
A Conservative, he ran for the House of Commons in 1896, a bad year for Tories, and won election in Halifax. A man without much evident ambition or demonstrated political talent, he reluc¬ tantly accepted the party leadership in 1901 when no one appeared to want it.
An unhappy leader, he repeatedly offered to resign, only to see his political enemies draw back for fear that another, more distasteful leader would claim the prize.Although Borden had pledged to clean up government corruption, he struck an alliance in 1911 with the “Toronto Eighteen,” large manufacturers who were opposed to Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s reciprocity agreement with the United States.
Borden, the man of principle, not only agreed to give the leaders of Toronto business a big say in choosing his Cabinet but he accepted their demand that he put French Canada in its place and that Canada’s relations with the empire be enhanced. In return, the Conservatives had all the money and all the newspaper support they needed to defeat the Liberals.
Robert Borden, the unlikely leader, was in power at last, and free trade with the Americans was dead.Borden honoured his deal with business. He put Thomas White, the Toronto Eighteen’s candidate, in Cabinet as minister of finance, and he offered Britain money to build two huge dreadnaughts, only to see the Liberal-dominated Senate derail his proposal to strengthen the Royal Navy.
Quebec received little from him, scarcely even the back of his hand, and the nationalistes who had supported him in 1911 because of their hatred for Laurier fell away quickly.When war came in August 1914, Borden s government was already deeply unpopular. As the nation mobilized and as patronage scandals rocked the House of Commons, Borden’s leadership again was weak.
But Canada s army grew strong overseas and, its reputation spread quickly, though casualties mounted ever higher. Could the nation sustain its strength at the front through voluntary methods? Should Quebec, low on enthusiasm for military adventures abroad and the British Empire, be permitted to send so few of its sons to the front? Or should “equality of sacrifice” be the ideal?
Returning to Canada in May 1917 after a trip to the front, Borden determined that conscription had to be imposed to sustain the Canadian Corps’ strength in the line. Quebec’s opposition was fierce, but Borden tried to bring Laurier onside by offering to take him into the government. Laurier refused. Borden then began to woo Liberals in the provinces, holding out the prospect of a Union Government to fight the election that was expected before the end of 1917.
Again, there was reluctance, so Borden’s government passed the Military Voters Act and the Wartime Elections Act. The first measure gave the vote to soldiers, which none disagreed with, though it tacked on powers to allocate votes to constituencies which blatantly corrupted the electoral system.
The second act took away the votes of naturalized “enemy” aliens, believed to be Liberal voters, and gave the franchise to the female relatives of soldiers, a group that might confi¬ dently be expected to support conscription to reinforce the men overseas. The two gerrymandering bills tilted the balance in favour of the government and propelled conscrip- tionist Liberals into the Union.
To guarantee his electoral victory, two weeks before the election Borden exempted farmers, cool to military service, from conscription. His government swept to power once more, winning scarcely a seat in French Canada and splitting the two solitudes.Canada was divided as never before.
The government’s conscription measure led thousands of call-ups to flee into the bush, provoked riots in the streets of Quebec City (put down by troops rushed from Toronto), and led to calls for secession in the Quebec legislature. Unmoved, Borden pressed ahead and, when the Germans launched a huge offensive in March 1918, he rescinded the farmers’ exemption from conscription.
Tough and determined, Borden brooked no opposition. Neither past pledges nor electoral honesty could sway him from his goal.Borden’s triumphs left his Conservative Party in ruins and his country scarred. Not until 1958 would bleus again do well in Quebec, and never again would Quebecois truly trust an English-speaking leader.
Not until 1944, after five years of war, would Canada impose a measure of conscription to rein¬ force its hard-pressed infantry in Northwest Europe and Italy. Not until 1988 would free trade with the United States be put into effect. The dour Nova Scotian with a will of iron had set his nation’s course for the future.